False-Equivalence Watch: POTUS Speaks

I return to my homeland to see that things have improved in at least one way. From the commanding heights of our government, the "false equivalence" problem seems to be coming into view. Here is how President Obama made the point today, in his remarks at the Associated Press luncheon.

Highlights of his speech to reporters and editors, with emphasis added:

I guess another way of thinking about this is -- and this bears on your reporting.  I think that there is often times the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they're equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented -- which reinforces I think people's cynicism about Washington generally. 

This [disagreement about the federal budget] is not one of those situations where there's an equivalence.  I've got some of the most liberal Democrats in Congress who were prepared to make significant changes to entitlements that go against their political interests, and who said they were willing to do it.  And we couldn't get a Republican to stand up and say, we'll raise some revenue, or even to suggest that we won't give more tax cuts to people who don't need them. [He is referring to the famous moment in which all Republican candidates were asked if they would support a budget deal skewed 10/1 to spending cuts over tax increases. They all said No.]

And so I think it's important to put the current debate in some historical context.  It's not just true, by the way, of the budget.  It's true of a lot of the debates that we're having out here.
Cap and trade was originally proposed by conservatives and Republicans as a market- based solution to solving environmental problems.  The first President to talk about cap and trade was George H.W. Bush.  Now you've got the other party essentially saying we shouldn't even be thinking about environmental protection; let's gut the EPA.

Health care, which is in the news right now -- there's a reason why there's a little bit of confusion in the Republican primary about health care and the individual mandate since it originated as a conservative idea to preserve the private marketplace in health care while still assuring that everybody got covered, in contrast to a single-payer plan.  Now, suddenly, this is some socialist overreach.

So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it's important to remember that the positions I'm taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions.  What's changed is the center of the Republican Party.  And that's certainly true with the budget.

If I weren't crazed with trans-Pacific fatigue, I would try to hunt up some early examples of "false equivalence" thinking by the president himself. But never mind that: it's heartening to hear him talking this way now, and in particular before this crowd.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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